ARC Review: Fresh Ink (anthology)

Genre: YA contemporary/science-fiction/fantasy/graphic novel/historical fiction

Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Synopsis:

fresh ink.jpgIn partnership with We Need Diverse Books, thirteen of the most recognizable, diverse authors come together in this remarkable YA anthology featuring ten short stories, a graphic short story, and a one-act play from Walter Dean Myers never before in-print.

Careful–you are holding fresh ink. And not hot-off-the-press, still-drying-in-your-hands ink. Instead, you are holding twelve stories with endings that are still being written–whose next chapters are up to you.

Because these stories are meant to be read. And shared.

Thirteen of the most accomplished YA authors deliver a label-defying anthology that includes ten short stories, a graphic novel, and a one-act play. This collection will inspire you to break conventions, bend the rules, and color outside the lines. All you need is fresh ink.

Disclaimer: I was provided an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Books.

I think this is the first YA short story anthology I’ve read and I really enjoyed it! Like all collections, what’s inside varies and different stories will appeal to different readers. I appreciated this one included a play and a graphic/comics story. I sort of wish it was longer, but I think its size also contributes to its feeling of immediacy, and the short stories might appeal to struggling or less avid readers. This would be especially great for new YA readers because they can be exposed to many authors and then check out their other works. It’s also great for teens looking to see themselves in literature–I believe all are #ownvoices for people of color, and many are LGBTQ as well. Ultimately, I think this anthology might help students interested in writing their own stories and introduce them to new authors to read.

Now, to talk about each story…

“Eraser Tattoo” by Jason Reynolds: This is a cute story about a teen couple in Brooklyn saying goodbye before one of them moves away. It weaves in the backstory of their friendship and romantic relationship, and I loved how I felt I was also sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn while reading it (helps I’ve been there). Unfortunately, there are still occurrences of everyday white privilege that rears its head.

“Meet Cute” by Malinda Lo: This is about a black Dana Scully cosplayer and a female Sulu (from Star Trek) cosplayer who meet at a con and the power goes out. And they’re cute and slowly discover they’re both queer and by the end you’re rooting for them to trade numbers. I loved this because I’m a huge X-Files and Star Trek fan and the commentary was great and hilarious, even if some comments about Star Trek have already become outdated due to the new series Discovery.

“Don’t Pass Me By” by Eric Gansworth: This story about a Native American boy going to a public school outside of the Reservation has lots of great commentary on how the school system treats Indigenous people and the concept of a “normal” skin color being white. It’s unfortunately a viewpoint we don’t see enough in YA or fiction in general. I also appreciated that this wasn’t a romance like so many of the others are.

“Be Cool for Once” by Aminah Mae Safi: This is a really cute story about a Muslim girl attending a rock concert with her friend and her crush shows up. He can’t really be there for her, can he? I loved how fleshed-out the characters were and how Shirin grew.

“Tags” by Walter Dean Myers: This short play was apparently written by Myers before he died. It takes place on a street the young male characters are trying to “tag,” each telling about how they died. The format definitely sets it up for the fantastical premise. Unfortunately, and especially since it’s short, it can be easy to mix up who is who while reading which is a problem I still have with plays and I’ve been reading them for a while. That said, I think it still has the potential to be powerful with young readers and I’m glad this different format was included in the collection.

“Why I Learned to Cook” by Sara Farizan: This was a really sweet story about an Iranian-American bi girl learning to cook Persian food with her grandmother for her girlfriend, though she isn’t out yet to her grandmother. I liked the overall themes, though I found the writing style rather bland.

“A Stranger at the Bochinche” by Daniel José Older: This was definitely unlike any of the others…a fantasy set in something like 1800s Brooklyn with a monster. The writing is very atmospheric and I admit I had trouble following it at the beginning, but by the end I was along for the ride.

“A Boy’s Duty” by Sharon G. Flake: This was a historical fiction story about a black boy during the World War II. I honestly had trouble following it and I don’t think much happened, but I appreciated the atmosphere the writing generated.

“One Voice: A Something in Between Story” by Melissa de la Cruz: This timely story follows the effect two hate speech graffiti incidents at Stanford has on an undocumented Filipina student. I loved that it was told in sections and the messages and discussions were definitely on-point.

“Paladin/Samurai” by Gene Luen Yang, Thien Pham (illustrations): This was maybe the shortest of the bunch, but the little narrative trick it pulled was cute and enjoyable. It’s about a group of kids playing a Dungeons and Dragons-like game, the girl some of them like, and their identities.

“Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar: This story is about a trans boy swimmer who has just come out to the whole world and the team and is navigating his first practice back. Some other boys are welcoming, some are not (tw for slurs), but he prevails. This is a good example of showing what might happen after coming out, as so many stories only cover understanding one’s identity and coming out.

“Super Human” by Nicola Yoon: Maybe this is because I read this last, but I think this is my favorite, and I think it succeeds on a great concept and execution that’s perfect for the short story format. It’s about X, the world’s one and only superhero who has vowed to destroy the world, and the one girl who has been chosen to stop him (because shew as the first he saved). The catch: the superhero is a black teen. There’s some great satire to how the world reacted to this that echoes events like Obama becoming president, but of course, there’s much deeper and heartfelt commentary to be had about the way society treats black teens and their double identities (code-switching). The girl (Syrita) is black too, but from an upper-class background with different experiences. The ending is perfect, too.

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Review: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

Publication date: April 24, 2018

Synopsis:

leahLeah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

About a year ago, I read Becky Albertalli’s first two books: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and The Upside of Unrequited, and I really enjoyed them–especially Simon, because his anxieties over coming out were very relatable to me personally. Sadly, my plans to see Love, Simon with friends this spring fell through (darn schoolwork!), but I’m sure I’ll see it soon. So as school wound down this year, it seemed only fitting to read her new release, Leah on the Offbeat. (And somehow no one had checked it out from my library’s Libby yet!)

Leah is a sequel of Simon of sorts, taking place during their next and final year of high school. It’s from Simon’s friend Leah’s perspective, and she’s bi but hasn’t come out to any of her friends yet, even though she’s known since she was eleven. She’s also still a drummer in her band, outspoken, and body-positive. All of this is great. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed.

First of all: this was difficult for me to read personally. This isn’t a criticism of the writing itself…in fact, it might be a compliment. The senior year of high school feelings of high school were very on-point, but it reminded me of my own intense feelings from that time, especially when the story dealt with break-ups, college anxieties, and prom. (Ugh, prom. But if Leah taught me anything, it’s that promposals maybe are okay if they’re  not as overwhelmingly heteronormative as the rest of prom is?) Leah’s own anxiety was absolutely on point, and I related to that; it was just difficult to read. I really loved her commentary on how expensive college visits/applications/etc were and how she felt left out because she was going to a state school, and how she didn’t want a public promposal because of her anxiety. And that prom scene with the realization that it’s all going to be over soon? Yup. Real.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Simon, so I don’t think I can comment too much on the continuity of the characters between that and this, but I do have some thoughts. Simon and Bram were adorable and had relatable anxieties and were probably my favorite part. Morgan and Anna had a tough and important storyline to play with Leah (“what if your best friends since middle school are not the people you still want to hang out with because they have a tendency to be racist/forgive racist comments easily?”), but I barely remembered them from the first book and felt like I was missing something. I really wish the band had gotten more time, and that was what I thought from the title, and mostly I wish Taylor had been more fleshed out. Nick seems to be who many are disappointed about, but my main concern with him is how he was a loose end kind of tossed away at the end. Seriously, is he okay?? He seems to be heading into self-destructive behavior and alcohol usage and I’m just really worried as someone who went through a big break-up around that time, too. I understand not everything is tied up by the end of high school, but Leah’s “three months later” email to Simon didn’t seem to indicate they were taking the issue seriously as his friends.

Some parts definitely felt like fanfiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s nice commentary to see two female characters from the original fall for each other like many had hoped, as there had been hints in Simon. I was more ambivalent about it because I think I just have a limit for shipping and romcom tropes, personally. But…how this was approached was frustrating to me at the least.

THIS IS WHERE WE HEAD INTO SPOILER TERRITORY. HEADS UP.

So…all the Leah/Abby interactions were definitely cute and swoony, and while they only just begin their relationship at the end, I just felt like there was something missing there…mostly, more of an emotional connection. There were opportunities for it, but Leah kept avoiding it in a very frustrating and almost hurtful way.

Abby tries to express the fact that she has wanted to kiss her for a year and a half and is questioning her sexuality, but Leah shuts down and isn’t supportive of this. This makes sense initially, as she’s hurt because her first kiss has possibly been “stolen” by a straight girl, and it’s all consistent with Leah’s brash personality. THEN Abby comes out to her as “lowkey bi” after discussing this with her cousins (from Upside!) and Leah shuts her down, insisting this isn’t a real thing. Which is false, because it’s a spectrum…surely Leah is on Tumblr enough to know about the Kinsey scale and such. And while painful to read, this scene is still consistent with Leah’s character and ratchets up the tension.

But…this never gets addressed. At the end Leah just accepts that their feelings are mutual, and Abby never explicitly comes out and they never have an opportunity to discuss their sexuality, which would have been interesting and honestly a discussion that should be had after Leah’s previous behavior. Because Leah just never apologizes!! That’s just it!! And as a result, their conflict just doesn’t feel resolved but rather brushed aside, kind of allowing Leah’s behavior.

END OF SPOILERY SECTION

Ultimately, while Leah on the Offbeat was as enjoyable to read as any Albertalli book and depicted emotions well, the central love story left many loose ends and issues not addressed, leaving the conflict feeling unresolved in a troublesome way to me.

PSA: THERE IS A PREVIEW OF WHAT IF IT’S US IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. IT IS ADORABLE.

Review: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publication date: January 2, 2018

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Summary:

you'll miss me when I'm goneEighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is a complex contemporary novel that’s gripping and very human. Told in dual perspective, Adina and Tovah both have distinct passions, voices, and characteristics, and you really get to know them and their family before the test results so you feel the impact of it. The alternating perspective really does allow for an understanding of the complex reasoning behind the decisions and emotions each twin has, as flawed as it might be, though often that’s because of information they aren’t privy to. But that wasn’t in a frustrating lack of communication way; it all made sense because of their characters and situations. This made it incredibly realistic, especially as it grappled with intense topics. (TW for self-harm and suicide ideation.) The thought-provoking topics of genetic testing, assisted suicide, religion, family, and relationships are handled very well and will make you think about where the story might go.

For a YA book, college admissions is a major focus, and frankly I very much needed this book when I was a senior. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I found that Tovah’s eventual peace at not having her life completely planned out as she had originally hoped–including with her relationship–was so important and something I REALLY needed at that time in my life. Meanwhile, it was refreshing to hear about a teen pursuing classical music, as you don’t see that too much in media (meanwhile, Tovah’s love for more modern music also adds to the music love which I appreciate). Each twin’s romantic relationship was also well-explored as they navigated the differences between lust and love from different perspectives. Toxic situations are called out, and there are many sex-positive discussions about relationships, desire, and contraceptives.

I also appreciated the many details of Judiasm in this book. Adina and Tovah’s mother is Israeli, and they speak Hebrew with her and to each other at times and are raised as Conservative Jewish. The distinction between this and other forms of Judiasm are explored, as is how American society tends to ignore it. Adina, Tovah, and their parents all have different relationships to their religion and culture, especially influenced by their mother’s declining health due to the genetic disease of Huntington’s. I learned a lot and found this complexity not just interesting, but realistic.

Ultimately, this was such a good read that was not afraid to push its characters to act logically and emotionally when confronting big topics, while still managing to wrangle the messiness into a satisfying ending.

Review: 27 Hours by Tristina Wright

Genre: YA science fiction

Publisher: Entangled Teen

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

Summary:

27 Hours.jpgRumor Mora fears two things: hellhounds too strong for him to kill, and failure. Jude Welton has two dreams: for humans to stop killing monsters, and for his strange abilities to vanish.

But in no reality should a boy raised to love monsters fall for a boy raised to kill them.

Nyx Llorca keeps two secrets: the moon speaks to her, and she’s in love with Dahlia, her best friend. Braeden Tennant wants two things: to get out from his mother’s shadow, and to unlearn Epsilon’s darkest secret.

They’ll both have to commit treason to find the truth.

During one twenty-seven-hour night, if they can’t stop the war between the colonies and the monsters from becoming a war of extinction, the things they wish for will never come true, and the things they fear will be all that’s left.

27 Hours is a sweeping, thrilling story featuring a stellar cast of queer teenagers battling to save their homes and possibly every human on Sahara as the clock ticks down to zero.

**Disclaimer: I received a finished copy of 27 Hours in exchange for an honest review.**

First of all, I want to apologize a little. I took an unofficial hiatus because the latter half of my semester got busy and I needed to focus on finals and readings for class, and I fell behind on everything else. But now I’m done with the semester and ready to get back on track!

27 Hours was a book that I was pretty intrigued about before I was offered to review it. I admit I don’t read much sci-fi or fantasy anymore, mostly because of length and because I just can’t commit to series, but I do love the genres and tend to gravitate toward them in other media. 27 Hours seemed like a good place to jump back into the genre, especially as it centers a diverse group of queer characters. After all, one of my frustrations about YA SFF was the common inclusion of a heterosexual romance subplot that seemed to revolve around the same types of characters.

I enjoyed the action-fast first pages that threw you into the world with lush descriptions. While I personally like this writing style in this genre, I understand it isn’t for everyone. I’m definitely one to be more invested in character and setting than plot (unless it’s an intricate mystery-type book), so I enjoyed exploring the world and getting to know the characters. The romances were absolutely swoon-worthy and lovely. That said, I didn’t think Braeden’s asexuality was presented entirely accurately: it was constantly equated to not having sex, whereas it is only the absence of sexual attraction (some ace people are sex-repulsed, others aren’t, etc). I was also a little disappointed that it was always the men who were physically fighting.

I can’t really write this review without linking to this one, which explored the lack of true racial representation and how the main characters’ species and race affected the themes of colonialism. Wright certainly acknowledges the issue of colonialism, but in my experience reading it, I definitely saw the chimera as some sort of monstrous “Other” even though they turn out to be intelligent and communicable beings. It will be interesting to see how they’re involved in the rest of the series.

I do think Wright tries to explain the lack of connection (most of) the teens have with the ancestry with mention of a generation ship thing, but a “universal” language emerging 150-200 years in the future does leave many questions. There’s a lot of cultural erasing going on when you have to delete languages (and indeed the society portrayed is rather Western), all universal language attempts thus far have really failed to make a difference, and some things just don’t plain translate, making the whole process difficult and leaving a lot of sacrifices behind. Furthermore, Nyx is Deaf and she and other characters communicate in sign language, which itself would not only prove an exception to the “universal language” thing (sign language has its own grammar and syntax!), but also…which sign language survived? There are several versions.

Overall, I enjoyed 27 Hours if I don’t poke too many holes in it. My record at actually reading sequels is pretty miserable, but I am curious to how this might continue.

Review: Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Genre: YA contemporary/mystery

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: October 10, 2017

Synopsis:

echo after echoDebuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared—for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; and for death in the theater.

Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater—and then another—especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole—and cast lantern light on two girls, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.

**I received an eARC copy of this from Negalley in exchange for an honest review.**

I excitedly requested Echo After Echo because I’d been looking forward to it; I’ve gotten into theater a lot lately (though not quite in an actor way) and haven’t seen many fictional books about drama kids, which hasn’t been helpful since I’m currently trying to capture some of that community in my own writing. Furthermore, a female/female love story featuring a bi girl always perks my interest.

So, I had the contemporary mindset going in, the genre I read mostly. But oh man, is this a mystery story, and a good one. The atmosphere is creepy from the beginning–I mean, Zara finds a dead body when she first arrives at the theater! And almost everyone in the theater is weird and mysterious–or, at least, not very friendly at first, including the creepy famous director, Leopold, who can get away with way too much power abuse because he’s “brilliant.” He also has visions, and coupled with the theater’s curse, I wondered if there was something supernatural going on. But because of Zara and Eli’s budding relationship, the mystery doesn’t take the forefront in the middle, so it doesn’t drag or rely solely on its (well-constructed) plot, constantly asking you to question it. And then they seem to figure it out, but…it isn’t what it seems. Which was AMAZING because I did not expect the level of complexity to the mystery in a book I regarded as a contemporary–and that more or less tricks you into believing you’re reading one in the middle.

But aside from the mystery, Zara/Eli is written with great amounts of suspense and swoon, keeping them apart for just the right time to keep the page turning without growing exhausting. It’s established early on that Zara and Eli like girls (though Eli doesn’t know Eli does for a while), and that Zara’s dated and kissed boys, too. So this wasn’t a discovery story in that respect, which tend to dominate LGBTQ stories (albeit for a reason–but it’s not the be-all-end-all). Yet, Zara isn’t completely figured out yet; she tries to come out to her family and also says “I’m bisexual” when she’s absolutely sure. THE WORD! It used the word, even when it was easy to infer! (Bi people always have to come out over and over again, or else they’re assumed to be either gay or straight.) Also, isn’t it great there’s queer representation in different genres (mystery in this case) from the usual contemporaries?

Echo After Echo is written in third person omniscient, with different chapters centering on different characters, although certainly Zara is focused on the most. This allowed for plenty of insight into the other characters’ psyches, preventing them from being weird types. Additionally, I just really liked the writing–there were quite a few turns of phrases I highlighted. (I would give examples, but ARCs are not final so we can’t quote from them!)

The theater was a refreshing (albeit dark and mysterious setting); it was nice seeing a YA book where the teenage characters are not in high school. Zara did apply to colleges to attend after she finishes her run in the play, and certainly not everyone can be a working artist at the age, but it was a great glimpse into that life.

I honestly have few negative things to say. I began to wish Adrien had more depth than the shallowness and awareness of fan-pleasing you’d expect from a young, hot male movie star, but then I was pleasantly surprised with more backstory and comments on how he stumbled into the business and how fame affected his life and relationships.

Now I need to get a finished, physical copy for my future classroom…

Review: Kid Authors: True Tales of Childhood from Great Writers

Author: David Stabler

Illustrator: Doogie Horner

Genre: nonfiction

Publisher: Quirk Books

Publication Date: October 10, 2017

Synopsis:

kid authorsThe series that includes Kid Presidents, Kid Artists, and Kid Athletes now chronicles the lives of Kid Authors! Here are true tales of famous writers, from long before they were famous–or even old enough to drive. Did you know:
– Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain) loved to skip school and make mischief, with his best friend Tom, of course!
– A young J. R. R. Tolkien was bitten by a huge tarantula–or as he called it, -a spider as big as a dragon.-
– Toddler Zora Neale Hurston took her first steps when a wild hog entered her house and started chasing her!
The diverse and inclusive cast includes Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, J. K. Rowling, Langston Hughes, Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, Stan Lee, and many more.

**I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**

Kid Authors is a new middle grade (on the lower end of that spectrum, I would say) nonfiction book from Quirk Books in their series of fun stories about famous people when they were younger. Written by David Stabler, the book has many delightful color illustrations by Doogie Horner.

The book covers a diverse selection of authors, although most of them would be familiar to children, and they are mostly American. Some of the stories were more focused on specific events than others, which made them stronger in my opinion, and almost all related back to how they became authors. I found Sherman Alexie’s really interesting, and I didn’t know that Edgar Allen Poe was a foster child! Unfortunately, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s was not much new if you’re familiar with the Little House series.

A paragraph in Langston Hughes’s chapter really stood out to me: he was voted class poet in eighth grade unanimously, but he had not written a poem yet, at least outside of his mind. So he went and started writing to prove himself. That’s like some predestination craziness.

One thing I was a little surprised with was the use of “Indians” to refer to Native Americans all the time. It made sense in the Laura Ingalls Wilder story because of the time period, and there’s a great illustration of an exasperated Native American frustrated about how they’d left for a little and suddenly some settlers moved in. But otherwise, I was surprised they didn’t use Native Americans as well, as it is so much more accurate and I think that’s important in a children’s book.

There are also little facts about other authors’ childhoods in the back, which were pretty fun. The best one was absolutely Earnest Hemingway, that All-American Man, who was dressed in his older sister’s clothes until he was 5 and his mother said he was her daughter “Ernestine”!!!

This is definitely something great to have in the classroom!

Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Genre: YA speculative fiction/contemporary (feels more like the latter than a SFF story)

Publisher: Harper Teen

Release Date: September 5, 2017 (see what they did there??)

Synopsis:

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

they both die at the end

So this book snuck up on me a little. I’d loved Adam Silvera’s previous two books, but while More Happy Than Not floored me with its plot twists and construction and History is All You Left Me grabbed my interest with its topics on breakups and OCD, I wasn’t as interested in the concept of They Both Die at the End, so I was a little nervous. I’d seen a couple of great reviews and a couple of mixed ones. But then I got to the end, and I’m having troubling coming up with much negative to say about it.

While They Both Die at the End clearly has some sci-fi elements, it reads more like a contemporary, interesting in exploring the “what-if” situation with a realistic story. And yet, the impact Death-Cast has had on the world isn’t ignored–there’s a whole industry out there trying to make money by making the lives of the soon-to-die (called “Deckers”) better, and books, TV, and other stories now have Death-Cast as a plot point. A lot of it serves as commentary for how death is handled on social media, which is something I’ve had to think about recently. Most chapters are told from either Rufus’s or Mateo’s POVs (which are very distinctive), but there are glimpses of other people affected, most of which cross paths somewhere with Rufus and Mateo. Even though it all takes place in a day, there’s so much ground covered that it doesn’t feel rushed or stretched.

We all like to proclaim how emotional Adam Silvera’s books make us, but I’m not sure we give him enough credit for his plotting. More Happy Than Not has a plot twist that reveals so many little details planted beforehand, and They Both Die at the End reminded me of that careful structure. There are a lot of details–especially from the other POV chapters as I mentioned earlier–that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. And how they actually die isn’t quite what you expect.

Even though, yes, they both die at the end, the knowledge of the fact and how it is handled prevents this from being a “bury your gays” scenario. Like History is All You Left Me is about break-ups and grief with a m/m couple, this is a high-concept story about family and friendship and love that also happens to feature two boys. It’s not a “what is it like to be a guy or bi guy?” story. So, as I’m sure you’ve expected, there is a bit of a romance–but it’s a slow-burn, and even though this takes place over just one day, there’s friendship first. Lots of talking about deep, philosophical issues (I mean, what else would you do when your impending death is certain and foretold?) and their lives. Mateo and Rufus are very different characters, but they have plenty of heart and love for their family and friends. It’s cute and tender and pure.

Another thing I appreciated: Mateo likes music and has several songs that he has attachments to, and most of them were the kind of music I listen to, as well, so I had a deeper understanding of their relevancy, even though important lyrics are included. In particular: “One Song Glory” from Rent (regret and last wishes when death is close), “American Pie” (eight-minute epic about an untimely death, anti-60s sentiment aside), and “You’re Song” by Elton John (such a unique choice for a contemporary for its love and friendship song). I was geeking out a bit, I admit.

Review: Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell

Kaleidoscope Song

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: September 19, 2017

kaleidoscope songSouth Africa is loud. Listen. Do you hear the song and dance of it? The chorus of Khayelitsha life? Every voice is different, its pitch and tone and intonation as distinct as the words we choose and how we wrap our mouths around them. But everybody has a voice, and everybody sings…

Fifteen year old Neo loves music, it punctuates her life and shapes the way she views the world. A life in radio is all she’s ever wanted.
When Umzi Radio broadcasts live in a nearby bar Neo can’t resist. She sneaks out to see them, and she falls in love, with music, and the night, but also with a girl: Tale has a voice like coffee poured into a bright steel mug, and she commands the stage.

It isn’t normal. Isn’t right. Neo knows that she’s supposed to go to school and get a real job and find a nice young boy to settle down with. It’s written everywhere – in childhood games, and playground questions, in the textbooks, in her parents’ faces. But Tale and music are underneath her skin, and try as she might, she can’t stop thinking about them.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Synopsis:

brown girl dreaming.jpgJacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.

Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.

As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.

I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Genre: middle grade, surrealism/absurdism(?)

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

marvin gardens.jpgObe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his house, in the last wild patch left, picking up litter and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog, or maybe a small boar. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has ever seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–soon becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King tells the story of a friendship that could actually save the world.

Amy Sarig King is better known as A.S. King, one of my favorite YA authors. This is her middle grade debut, so naturally I was doubly intrigued to not only read it but to see how she would write for a different audience. I admit it took me a bit to get into, and like all her books it’s not going to appeal to the mainstream, but it definitely won me over by the end.

Me and Marvin Gardens is your boy-and-a-dog story except the “dog” in question is a completely unknown and strange but friendly creature who eats plastic and poops brightly-colored toxic waste. Yes, you read that right. This is a book about environmentalism, as Obe picks trash out of the creek, ponders pollution facts his cool science teacher writes on the board every day, and has watched his family’s land be turned into a housing development. The changing of the Earth with time was distilled to a microcosm perfectly in this setting. It also has a lot to explore about toxic masculinity, as Obe’s father reminds him frequently that boys don’t cry, and Obe’s former friend has turned against him to fit into the meaner crowd of boys who make a list of girls to kiss without their consent (and the book has a GREAT discussion on this with Obe, his sister, and their parents).

So, yes, this doesn’t have the pacing of your usual middle grade. Obe’s a very internal character and the conflict with Marvin Gardens (the nickname for the creature) and the neighborhood builds slowly. And yet, King has unquestionably tailored her style to suit middle grade. There’s still the surrealism/abusrdism (I don’t know what to call it because unlike some of her others this isn’t magical realism, as Marvin is definitely not treated as a normal thing in the world), but it’s much more linear than her other narratives. Obe occasionally reflects on what it was like 100 years ago when his family began to lose the land, preserving King’s narrative style of having excerpts in different styles from the main narrative–but again, it’s more approachable.

Another delightful aspect of Me and Marvin Gardens is the friendship. Obe grows closer with his friend and bus seat-mate, Annie, as she lets him in one what’s been going on, defends her against his ex-friend’s nonconsensual kiss, and brings her to his creek for her to collect rocks (she wants to be a geologist) and, eventually, to meet Marvin. They get teased a little bit, but their bond remains platonic, which is refreshing. (YA does tend to pair characters more than middle grade, but often MG will feature budding relationships.)

I also really loved the ending, which isn’t a surprise if you know me. I don’t want to spoil it, but it does involve a positive view of teaching as a profession!

As always, I’m looking forward to what A.S. King comes up with next.